Viola, Christian Nold, Yves
Teresa Margolles, Valerio Magrelli, William Kentridge
Katharina Grosse, Andrea Ferrara, Elisa Biagini
Maurice Benayoun, Antonella Anedda
|EMOTIONAL SYSTEMS I Publication l Lectures l Education l Contact l Italiano|
Forword by James M. Bradburne
Emotional Systems by Franziska Nori
feelings are" Antonio Damasio
|Taking the traditional Platonic antithesis between passion and rationality, emotion and reason, as his point of departure, Ronald de Sousa is able to demonstrate deductively that the role of emotions is actually not irrational at all, but quite similar to a subjective ‘perception’ within the scope of human rationality; emotions, therefore, are ‘dependent on thought’. In this sense, maintaining a purely philosophical stance and employing speculative, non-scientific methods, de Sousa produces an analysis complete with conclusions close to those of evolutionary psychology, and reflects on the relationship between emotion and art, essentially the same as that posited by Aristotle when he speaks of an aesthetic and purely contemplative attitude towards the ‘divine’.|
Ronald de Sousa
|A long tradition views all emotions as threats
to rationality. From Plato on down the ages, philosophers have exhorted
us to make Reason conquer Passion. We still say that ‘passion blinds
us’, and in common parlance to be philosophical about life’s
trials is to be decently unemotional about them. Ira brevis furor,
said the Latins, and in some jurisdictions the delitto passionale
is a kind of ‘brief-insanity defense’. Furthermore, we think
of many of our emotions as something we have in common with our mammalian
relatives. And so, since emotions belong to the ‘side’ or ‘part’
of us that is something less than human, we seem to be confirmed in the
notion that they are not rational. And yet when Aristotle suggested that
humans are the ‘Rational Animal’, he by no means excluded emotions
from human nature. That is because ‘rationality’ in his sense
includes the irrational. The proper contrast is with the arational,
the condition of stones, insects, or machines. Rational animal are capable
of irrationality. So emotions, precisely by their notorious tendency
to make us irrational, contribute essentially to making us rational in Aristotle’s
But the emotions’ role in human rationality is more substantial than that. To begin with, they are typically thoughtdependent: many emotions, like beliefs and desires, take state of affairs or situations as their objects. So whatever logical relations and inferential standards constrain thoughts should also bind emotions. These are therefore at least derivatively amenable to rational assessment. But two important connections are more direct.
First, we confidently judge some emotions to be more or less reasonable. Sometimes judging an emotion to be reasonable or unreasonable seems to mean nothing more than ‘I too might feel this way under similar circumstances’; at other times it reflects broader but equally inarticulate conventional standards: ‘It’s normal to feel this way.’ Sometimes it is equivalent to ‘appropriate’. But is there an independent standard of appropriateness by which emotions themselves may be assessed? This question was first raised by Plato who asked in effect: do we love something because it is objectively lovable, or do we call it ‘lovable’ because we love it? Without emotions, if we cared about nothing, would there still be something to care about? Starkly put, that is the question of the objectivity of values. But objectivity and subjectivity have many meanings. The projection of illusory properties onto the world is one kind of subjectivity. Another is the perspectival relativity attending different points of view. And the difference among different perspectives is no mere illusion. In this respect, emotions are comparable to perceptions, which inform us, by means of ‘subjective’ experiences, about ‘objective’ states of the world, which we home onto by cross-checking among sensory modalities and making rational inference. Like emotions, perceptions can be misleading in particular cases. Yet just as we would lose all hold of the world we live in if we dismiss all perception as illusory, so the rich and multidimensional landscape of value would flatten into universal indifference if in the quest for intelligible values we were globally to discount all our emotional responses.
Two crucial aspects of emotion, in particular, have a compelling claim to objectivity: their quality as experience, and their bearing on the body’s preparations for taking effective action in the face of challenges in living. Experience is, of course, ‘subjective’ by definition; but the fact that I have this or that experience is an objective one. This simple fact provides the germ of an irenic solution to the problem of understanding the relation between correctness, rationality and objectivity in general. Whether we are interested in thought or action, we distinguish success from failure in terms of some notion of correctness. Doing the right thing produces the correct result; making the right inferences preserves truth. As long as criteria for the correctness of the result can be stated independently of the attempt, we have a presumption of objectivity in success or failure. Rationality is related to success, but not identical to it: rational thoughts or actions are the ones most likely to succeed. From that point of view, then, emotions are relevant to rationality twice over: as arbiters of success, and as guides to ways of achieving it. To put it a little too simply, we could say that emotions first set our life's agenda and then tune our bodies and focus our attention in ways most likely to achieve it. In the latter role, their importance and their appropriate criteria of success relate to their instrumental functions. In the former role, however, they determine the very meaning of our lives.
Unfortunately, however, that does not mean that the deliverances of emotion are invariably to be taken at face value. All too often, emotions dispose us to act in ways that appear calculated to frustrate the very ends they have set. When, in my eagerness to have my love returned, I make hasty accusation expressing jealousy and fear, my possessive behaviour repels and alienates the very one I want to woo. Furthermore, my love object itself may be highly inappropriate, in that she fails entirely to embody those qualities that, were I dispassionately to reflect on the matter, I would deem indispensable in a lover or life partner. From an evolutionary point of view, this may seem paradoxical: for wouldn't natural selection have ensured the extinction of counterproductive action tendencies? Evolutionary psychologists propose to explain away this apparent paradox by pointing out two obvious facts. First, a standardised established pattern of relatively swift response might be occasionally disastrous despite being advantageous on average in the long run. Second, what was sufficiently useful in the past, during a sufficiently long period for certain dispositions to be selected, might be frequently counterproductive in the very different environment we live in a few hundred thousand years later. There is also another reason for both the importance of emotion in our lives and their uncertain reliability as guides. This relates to their formation in early childhood. It could be said, echoing the title of a successful book of the 80’s, that in the sphere of emotion ‘everything we need to know we learned before kindergarten’. The complex patterns of response and experience we call emotion are not instincts, nor are they innately fixed patterns of response laid down before our birth in the course of natural selection. Instead, they are learnt and shaped largely on the basis of scenes lived in early childhood, in which our natural dispositions combine with the felt social expectations of those around us to yield certain standard stories, characteristic sequences of feelings, motivations, interpretations, and desires that come to constitute this or that named emotion. I call these early formative episodes ‘paradigm scenarios’. The foundational role of paradigm scenarios in shaping our emotional repertoires raises difficult questions for anyone who wishes to ground our understanding of values in our emotional responses. Insofar as paradigm scenarios are formed on the basis of universal capacities and widespread interpersonal situations, one person’s emotional repertoire is likely to have much in common with another’s. But to the extent that every individual’s biography is unique, so will her emotional range and repertoire. Between any two human beings, small differences in the paradigm scenarios they associate with the name of an emotion provide the potential for systematic misunderstandings. These lie in wait, like shallow reefs lurking in placid waters, threatening unexpected discord beneath the apparently smooth surface of uniform social convention and human nature. While this complicates the question of the objectivity of values, the play of individuality against human nature explains the importance of emotions to art, and that of art to emotion.
Just as no one lives without emotions, so no peoples live without art. Most of us regard other animals as having some emotions similar to our own. These emotions facilitate and organize behavioural responses to life situations. Most human emotions are also concerned with guiding our attention and priming the body for urgent action in practical contexts. Insofar as we are able to detach our experience from practical concerns, however, we can attend to qualitative nuances the value of which cannot be reduced to a mere bivalence of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. As soon as we become sufficiently detached from the purely practical, we find we can attend to the quality of experience without needing to be committed to preferences among modes of behaviour. As Kant and other thinkers have noted, we are sometimes able to suspend in whole or in part the practical bearing of our emotional experience. In the special conditions that constitute the aesthetic context, we are able to adopt an aesthetic attitude, focusing not on the practical utility of emotions but on their intrinsic quality. Or, to put it differently, emotions acquire a new, derivative practical utility in our responses to art or in the impulse to make art. This consists in cultivating emotions for their own qualita- tive value, expanding our understanding of the breadth of human experience.
‘Experience’ means primarily conscious experience, of course; but consciousness has ‘fringes’ and inarticulate roots. Those aspects of experience can’t be clearly pinned down with adequate descriptions, yet they add ‘colour’ to the experiences that we are equipped to label. Emotions are the very stuff of art; but art in turn modifies and expands our capacity for emotional experience in practically limitless ways.
In the aesthetic attitude, we come closest to what Aristotle characterised as ‘divine’, namely pure contemplation liberated from practical need. That suggests that the cultivation of art shares an important feature with religion. In two important ways, however, the emotional involvement entailed by artistic contemplation is morally superior to that offered by traditional religion, particularly of the monotheistic variety.
First, art affords emotional satisfactions deriving from contemplation of imaginative illusions, entertained as such. Religion, by contrast, insists on delusive commitment to belief. (No art lover kills those who don't take fiction to be literal truth.) This superiority of art over religion derives in part, I suggest, from the absence in art of religion's meretricious expectation of rewards and punishments. Art (which is not to be confused with the art market!) is, like the purest science, not a means but an end.
Second, aesthetic contemplation endorses the possibility that authentic values might be incompatible, yet equally genuine. The god of monotheism must reject this, insofar as it requires commitment to the important ethical falsehood that all values are compatible. Only in the black-andwhite world of practical choice is value measured in a single dimension of better or worse. When values perceived or created by emotion are manifested in full colour, we can become aware of the important ethical fact that not all values are realizable simultaneously. Understanding the structure of emotional life, as it is revealed in art, shows us that tragedy – the impossibility of achieving some value without sacrificing another – lies at the heart of human life.
The Canadian philosopher Ronald de Sousa, author of the book The Rationality of Emotions (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), has written a new article on the subject for this catalogue, which we publish here in the original version.